Embarrassed by our former selves, we often recoil from the art we loved as adolescents. Artists we ardently fall for in our teens are frequently – and sometimes savagely – “dropped” later in life as our tastes become more sophisticated (or so we think).

In literature, such writers as J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Carver routinely suffer such a fate, while in art, Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, and Vincent Van Gogh are perhaps the classic cases.

Francis Bacon, too, belongs in this category. For those who succumbed early to an infatuation with his violent and glamorous work, as I did, the question of whether he is really any good can be as much a test of respect for our former selves, and the special receptiveness of youth, as it is of Bacon himself.

Widely regarded as a – if not the – leading figure in postwar British art, Bacon, who died in 1992, is the subject of a major retrospective here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over the years, he has been received in America with am bivalence. His first work to enter a public collection was bought by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1948. And the Met made Bacon the first living artist from Britain to be accorded a solo show in 1975.

But many leading US critics, offended, perhaps, by his disdain for abstraction – the idiom that established American ascendancy in art after 1940 – failed to give Bacon the lavish praise he was accorded in Britain and France.

Gary Tinterow, a curator at the Met, suggests another cause. In the catalog for “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective,” he writes that Bacon’s “overt homosexuality was incompatible with the disguised Puritan and overtly macho ethos of many of his American contemporaries . . . at least until the 1980s” when, he says, feminism and queer studies introduced more sympathetic attitudes.

Tinterow’s claim is as ridiculous as it looks (homosexuality was far from unknown in American art between the 1940s and the 1980s). But it is fair to say that Bacon’s psychological complexity, his combination of intense charm, queeny wit, and instinctive perversity, can seem very British (although he was actually born in Ireland) and, to some American observers, perhaps, alienating.

The Met show, which originated at London’s Tate Britain last year, does not make an open-and-shut case for Bacon’s greatness. It includes too much early work, and too much late work. The early paintings, from 1944 to 1962, which made such a big impression on observers at the time, look histrionic and bloated (big canvases with not much going on). The late ones lack tension, depending on arbitrary mannerisms and sensation-craving effects.

But there are two rooms filled with works of devastating force – and that ought to be enough for anyone.

Part of what makes these works, painted between 1962 and 1976, great is Bacon’s introduction of bright, saturated colors to his carefully designed and fastidiously painted backgrounds.

The early works, including the series of screaming popes that Bacon later dismissed, quite rightly, as “very silly,” tended to set isolated figures in transparent enclosures against black or gray backgrounds, often with vertical striations, vaguely suggestive of veils, prison bars, or the rows of spotlights used as ghostly extensions of architecture at Nazi rallies.

The contrast between the near-monochrome sobriety of this early work and the sumptuousness of the post-1962 colors is extreme. But nowhere in the lamely dutiful introduction to the catalog by curators Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens is color discussed.

Certainly it is strange to think of this supreme painter of human agony and despair as a connoisseur of royal purples, lush spring greens, phallic pinks, perfumed mauves, and commercial oranges. But Bacon was a great colorist who, like Matisse, came to understand the impact that large areas of saturated tints could have.

In paintings like “Lying Figure” (1969), “Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer” (1971), and the Matisse-like nude “Henrietta Moraes” (1966), Bacon set up thrilling tensions between the rectilinear areas of flat, unmodulated color he used for his backgrounds; the liquid, bulging outlines of his figures, which cast shadows like spilled blood; and the scumbled, layered brushstrokes he used to convey flesh.

The commentary on Bacon focuses always on the flesh. Bacon was, after all, a connoisseur of mortality and an avid student of gruesome medical textbooks, scenes of cinematic violence, and photographs of abattoirs. But in his great period, all these elements are splendidly interwoven.

A gambler, Bacon liked to play up his reliance on chance. But his orchestration of all the various elements in his paintings was so carefully controlled that the operations of chance were surely minimal. He began his creative career as a designer of modernist rugs and furniture in the vein of Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Eileen Gray, and it’s hard not to see the carefully plotted designs of his later canvases, especially the great triptychs, as vestiges of this period.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe